Not-Running

Over the years, I’ve posted a lot here about running, from chronicling my marathon training to pondering my deep ambivalence (if not flat out reluctance) about the act. Like writing here, I’ve stopped and started and stopped again, and issued myself new directives to get going once more.

This is a different sort of post, in which in which I am trying not to make myself do anything but instead to accommodate myself to the current situation, and to motivate myself to make as much of it as I can. It’s attempting what Tara Brach describes as the start of a process of recognition and acceptance, a moment of looking around and saying, “Oh, it’s like this.”

The situation is this: my left knee has been acting up for the last several months, mostly in a mid-grade way but at a couple of points acutely enough that I took to my bed with an ice pack, pretty worried that I might have actually damaged something. I finally persuaded myself to go see a sports medicine doctor and get it checked out. And of course, just like when you take your car to the mechanic, it wouldn’t make the noise. Or, rather, it did make the noise (“wow, that’s a lot of crackling,” my doctor said) but it didn’t hurt, it didn’t stick, it didn’t threaten to buckle. So she pushed and prodded and said that there didn’t appear to be anything structural wrong with it, and she sent me off for x-rays.

Which, as I should have known to expect, showed a bunch of arthritis. She sent me a prescription for physical therapy, and she advised me to lay off the high-impact exercise, at least for the time being. “I’m not saying you can’t run ever again,” she said. “But for now.”

My physical therapist, however, was a good bit more solidly in the running-is-over camp. And I’m finding myself there as well. It’s partially because the thing going on in my knee seems to be degenerative, and as the PT said, it can’t be reversed or even really stopped. But it’s also partially because it gives me permission to stop bashing my head against that particular wall. Deciding that running is over lets me stop feeling bad about not running, and about not wanting to run, and it opens up some space for me to focus on doing some other things.

So for the last few weeks I’ve been all about the stationary bikes at my gym, and I’ve even taken a few spinning classes. (I’ve also been advised to back off on those until we strengthen things around my knees a bit — but that feels like something to look forward to.) And I’m doing my PT and working with a personal trainer to try to strengthen more generally.

I wanted to write about this today because it feels a bit emblematic, capturing something about how I’ve been trying to approach change over the last few years, finding ways not to fight the things that can’t be fought, ways to hold onto the meaningful parts of the past and to let go of what cannot be. It’s a mode of being in the world that I’m trying to bring to my work as well: recognizing, for instance, that whatever writing I’m doing is likely to go way more slowly than I want it to, and that my wanting it to go faster won’t change that. And that recognition — “Oh, it’s like this” — is the first step toward figuring out how to make the most of the slowness.

Reluctant Is Just the Word

Boone captures something here that I really needed to have drilled into my head: that if I’m going to get over my recent dread w/r/t running, I probably need to (a) know something about how hard the running I’m doing really is (rather than how hard I think it ought to be), and (b) make it way less hard, so that I feel less beaten up afterward. Heart rate monitor obtained, and now used for two days. The resulting info was highly instructive, and I’m feeling pretty motivated, which is a decided improvement.

Running

I’ve had an on-and-off romance with running for nearly 20 years now. I came to it late; I hated running as a kid, and I avoided it as much as I could in high school. And given that on the one hand I was pretty notably underweight until my mid-20s, and on the other, I grew up in a time and place that hadn’t yet been touched by things like girls’ soccer teams, nobody really forced me to think about anything like exercise. I joined a gym here and there; I took the occasional aerobics class. Never anything with any focus.

Until I went back to grad school. For some reason, that first semester at NYU I got serious. I went to Coles (which I recall being pretty shiny and new then) and took a prescriptive fitness class, where I learned a few basic things about exercise and was supervised through a range of circuit training programs. I remember spending a lot of my cardio time on a stair climber, until one of the instructors stopped me one day and said “mix it up a bit, Kathleen!” So I got on a treadmill and ran a mile in 10 minutes — the first mile I had ever run in my life. I was 26.

And I was hooked. R. and I started running together whenever we could. I was way slower than he was, always, but he pulled me along and got me to do more than I thought I could. And I ran by myself, too: endless tight little laps on Coles’s roof track, at first, and then once I moved to Hell’s Kitchen, early morning loops of lower Central Park. Those years, I was probably in the best physical shape of my life, and it was clear that the running was helping keep me on an even keel through the craziness of grad school.

But, being a grad student, I let the running gradually come, like everything else to be about Accomplishment. There’s nothing wrong with that, at least in the abstract, but it did something to the experience for me. It drove me to do more and more, well past the point at which I really should have just let myself settle into a more meditative routine.

In 1997, as I went on the job market, moved into high gear trying to finish my dissertation, and took on a full-time load of freelance work, my number came up in the lottery for the NYC marathon. And so I added training for that race to my schedule.

The marathon itself was amazing, though I ran it about half an hour slower than I’d hoped (partly for reasons out of my control; partly because of some less than optimal choices I made). It was an astonishing day, though, and I have no regrets whatsoever about the marathon itself. Training for the marathon, however, was another story. For months, I got up well before dawn to go run before settling down to work. I gave up hours and hours during the week, and pretty much a full day on the weekend, to running. And everything hurt pretty much all the time — not from an injury, just that overstressed, overused, constant ache.

I recovered slowly after the race, and gradually got back to a more normal level of running. Sort of. Something about all of those hours made me kind of dread running, and so once I graduated and moved to Claremont and started the business of being an assistant professor, I gradually… just… stopped.

Which is when the running dreams started, I think. I’d have these incredible dreams about running very strange race courses — across cities, in buildings, down stairs, through stores. Or I’d start running to try to catch someone, and just keep going. In my dreams, I was fast, and I felt great. A little nudge from the unconscious, I think, saying “don’t you want to feel this again when you’re awake?”

So I did gradually pick the running back up again, but wound up following the same cycle: ran well and felt great; ran more and felt better; decided to see if I could run another marathon. That one was Los Angeles, in 2005, and again the race itself went super well. And again, all the running before and after, a bit less so. I blew out one of my arches due to all the overtraining, and wound up with orthotics, which I never really got the hang of running with. And gradually, again, I stopped.

I picked the running back up a bit during my sabbatical a couple of years ago, but things started hurting again, and so I backed back off, trying to find my way to something that would be enough. Since then I’ve done some yoga, and a bunch of walking, but nothing has felt quite as good as running at its best has felt. And if I actually get to move into the apartment that I’m hoping I’ll be moving into soon, I’m going to have amazing access to another amazing park, and I want to be able to take advantage of that.

So I’m back at it, running again. And I’m trying to get myself to think about “enough” on the front end, as I’m starting up, rather than when things begin breaking down. I’m nearly 20 years older than I was when I ran that first mile, and I weigh a fair bit more, and things just don’t work quite like they used to. I eased my way into running this time with a lot of walking, and then slow short running intervals, gradually increasing them until I could run continuously. I’m a couple of months in, and it all feels pretty decent — nothing hurts, and I’m recovering from my runs well.

But I’m slow. What used to be my steady training pace is now my all-out intervals pace. I can feel my younger selves sneering at what my steady training pace has now become.

I remember telling R. years ago, in those early running days, that the key aspect of discipline for me was less about the need to make myself go do something than it was about the need to keep myself from doing too much. And so I’m trying to be very disciplined about things, to build strength slowly, to keep plodding forward, to focus on the years ahead rather than the miles right now.

Enough

I’m in what amounts to the last couple of weeks of my sabbatical, and so am finding myself reflecting a bunch on the goals I’d set for myself at the beginning of the year and the utterly unexpected place in which I now find myself. It’s typical for me, at the end of a break, to look back at what I’ve accomplished and think “not bad, but nowhere near as much as I wanted to get done.”

Actually, it’s not just typical — it’s invariable. There has never, ever been a period of time, during which I was supposed to be focused on my own projects, in which I’ve felt like I’ve accomplished enough.

Until now. Not only do I feel like I’ve done enough, I’ve done more than I expected. This isn’t to say that I’ve accomplished everything on my to-do list — I’m still revising the overdue article on Infinite Summer, and I’ve got a review article that I really ought to have gotten out by now — but I’ve done a lot of things that weren’t on my to-do list, and I’ve taken on some amazing new projects, and I generally feel like I’ve made real progress in a lot of areas. And for this year, that’s enough.

“Enough” is a concept that I need to do some more work on, though, in a bunch of different aspects of my life. It’s a measure that too often has more to do with some invidious comparison with other people than it does with an internally focused sense of who I am and what I want to do. Working in the academy, in particular, has played heavily on a couple of insecurities of mine, and has for years left me feeling as though I were always trailing behind, trying to catch up with the people I considered my peers. It’s as though I’ve spent years in a race — not with myself, but with those around me — and my need to do more, faster, better, has been focused less on my own desires than on what those around me are doing, and what they might think of me. It’s hard, when you turn everything into a competition, to figure out what’s really enough.

And this applies in a bunch of areas of my life, I think. Fitness, for instance: as the archives here will attest, I used to run a fair bit, and there still aren’t any other modes of exercise that combine running’s payoffs with its economy. But the older I’ve gotten, the less fun running has become. Things hurt afterward in ways that make me start dreading going to the gym — and when I dread something like that, I just won’t do it. Even so, I’ve tried all year to really get back to running, and every time I’ve gone to the gym and done something other than run — or worse, every time I’ve skipped going to the gym for two weeks because I couldn’t bear the thought of running — I’ve gotten upset with myself. For not doing enough.

But here too there’s an invidious comparison at work — and this I think is one of the dangers that the so-called “gamification” of everything poses for the ways that we live our lives. I’m surrounded by runners online, many of them younger (some of them a lot younger) and all of them faster and stronger. And I realized the other day that a huge part of what had me pushing myself to run all year was some desire to keep up with those folks, some ingrained sense of competitiveness that was driving me to do more, not so much in order to feel better about myself but in order to feel better about the comparison between myself and others.

The result, of course, is always the same: running hurts. I quit. I feel guilty and inadequate.

For the last few weeks, I’ve been walking on the treadmill at the gym. I walk hard, and fast, and I feel good afterward. It never hurts. But I’m having to work hard on letting that be enough, on pulling myself out of the competition I’ve built.

And I’m now wondering how this sense of enough, of focusing on what I genuinely want to accomplish rather than on how people will see those accomplishments, might affect other parts of my life. How might freeing myself from the need to compete with others change the ways I approach my work? How can I begin figuring out what’s enough for me?

Dreams

The last couple of nights, I’ve dreamed about running, a little way for my unconscious to attempt to guilt-trip me into getting back into my running shoes. It’s been one thing after another for the last week: a strained something in my left knee and hip that had me walking funny for a couple of days; a big pile of meetings that required me to be showered and dressed earlier than I usually can if I run first; the muscle spasm; sheer inertia. The dreams only kicked in once I hit the sheer inertia phase of the cycle, signaling that it’s time to get going again.

My dreams are often like that, embarrassingly obvious little nudges from below telling me that something’s going on that needs attending to. Like the night not long ago when I went to bed after having drunk a fair bit more than I should have: I dreamed of drinking glass after glass of water, the best-tasting water I’ve ever had. Of course I woke up dying of thirst, completely dehydrated.

And let’s not even get into the recurring dream about my inability to find a working bathroom at the MLA.

What I can’t quite tell, though, is if the dreams are intended to wake me up — “Hey, stupid: you’re thirsty!”; “Come on, lazy slug; don’t you remember how good it feels to run?” — or if, rather, they’re intended to keep me asleep, simulating the satisfaction of whatever need my body has such that my mind can keep dreaming.

It never works with the MLA dream, though; I never can find a toilet that isn’t either occupied, broken, or so repulsive as to be unusable.

At some point, of course, all those bodily demands have to be answered. I’ll be back on the treadmill tomorrow morning, in more ways than one.

Running Log 2.3

Planned mileage for week: 15

Actual mileage for week: 3

Planned number of run days: 4

Actual number of run days: 1

Long run for week: 3

Aches, pains, complaints: Stupid cold.

The good news is, though, that I’m basically recovered, and that I had a fabulous run this morning. I’m of course now two weeks behind where I wanted to be with my long run, though, so the schedule’s going to need some retooling. But I’m back at it, and that’s an improvement.

And in case you’re keeping count: three and a half more weeks of classes. And four weeks and five days until I leave on my sabbatical.

Running Log 2.2

Grrrr.

Planned mileage for week: 14

Actual mileage for week: 9

Planned number of run days: 4

Actual number of run days: 3

Long run for week: 3

Aches, pains, complaints: No aches or pains. Just complaints. I managed to get myself out of bed the first morning of my conference in plenty of time to go run before the first interview, and so was all kinds of proud of myself. But two late nights followed that, one when I just couldn’t get to sleep, and one when I stayed up until all hours of the morning talking with a former student, and neither morning was I able to countenance the long run. And this week is already off to a bad start. Here’s hoping posting this snaps me out of this missed-run streak. Because the running has felt fabulous, and has definitely been an attitude improver. Which is to say that my attitude has gone from so abysmally bad that I’m ready to pick fights in the hallway to just so bad that I’m ready to gripe at the drop of a hat. 

Running Log 2.1

Planned mileage for week: 9

Actual mileage for week: 9

Number of run days: 3

Long run for week: 4

Aches, pains, complaints: None so far, or nothing pressing, in any case. Getting started again after two months of non-running is a bit tough, and a little hard on the various joints, but not enough so to make me complain, much less quit. I do have one pretty serious knot in my left shoulder, which is causing a bit of stiffness and an intense ache throughout my neck and upper back, but aside from that, all’s well. On the positive side, my stress levels are abating, about which, thank god.

Return of Running Log

This is the official announcement of the return of the running log. The announcement comes in no small part because I have discovered, much to my dismay, that I have become one of those people who is incapable of doing anything without a specific future goal, and without some potential for public shame to enforce my work toward that goal.

So, the goal: the Mardi Gras Marathon, February 5, 2006. It’s a little sooner than I’d ideally like — I could use about five more weeks to train — but you take what you can get.

And while I’m admittedly doing this largely for my own wellbeing — more on which later — this particular marathon has the benefit of forcing me to reach outside myself, to others who need support. The race organizers have announced that the net proceeds from the marathon will be given to Katrina relief funds. I will also be fundraising as I train, more information about which will be forthcoming soon.

I’ve just completed what, if my running log is to be believed, is my first run in almost two months. An easy two miles. I had to force myself not to go further. An auspicious start, I think, for the marathon ahead.